What is it about the human-animal that compels us to interrupt the elemental elegance and perpetual incompleteness of a perfect ellipse with an arbitrarya beginning? And yet here we are, once , marking the start of a new year as gravity — a force outside time and space, acting instantaneously on each body across infinite distances, holding the universe together — goes on dragging our planet around an orbit with no beginning and no end. Here we are, childlike in our yearning for a fresh start, our in the ellipse.
Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) was sixteen and already in university when she glimpsed Andromeda for the first time and was instantly besotted by our sister galaxy’s “delicate wisp oflight floating in what seemed a bottomless well of space.” The daughter of a geologist, she had grown up exploring the shores of a prehistoric lake and becoming a penetrating, sensitive observer of nature, enchanted with the night sky of northern Canada and its bellowing intimation of an infinite universe, dark and mysterious and salted with wonders. By twenty-six, having completed her doctorate in astronomy at Newton’s hallowed ground in Cambridge, Elson received a fellowship to work with the first data from the at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein’s hallowed ground.
At twenty-nine, just as she began teachingat Harvard, stepping publicly into the private literary passion that had always buoyed her science, Elson’s blazing path of promise and possibility was dimmed by a terminal diagnosis — a rare form of lymphoma that typically afflicts the elderly. Full of life and full of wonder, she moved through the years of chemical brutality, remission, and more brutality by weaving her parallel lifelines: She continued studying how stars are born, live, and die, and she wrote poetry — spare, stunning poems tessellating the grandest search for cosmic .
When she returned her borrowed stardust to the universe at only thirty-nine, she left in her meteoric path 56 scientific papers and a slender, sublime book of poetry titled( ) — a shrine of such uncommon treasures as her and
Among these delicate wisps of sensemaking is a meditation on the meaning of New Year’s Eve — on how we hold on to our tenderest humanity against the elemental austerity of this arbitraryin our planet’s orbit. Composed at a of new Year had run out, the poem reverberates with a love of life more significant than her existence.